Notre Dame men poised for an A effort
Picked that preseason to challenge for a conference championship -- the Irish were slotted fourth and received one first-place vote in the coaches' poll -- Notre Dame also was handed the league's A schedule designed to maximize the program's potential to be really good in 2008-09.
Instead of soaring, the Irish were staggered by a six-game conference losing streak -- seven straight with the journey out west for a 26-point loss at UCLA. They often seemed suffocated by a tag-team combination of a demanding league schedule and inflated expectations to back a No. 9 preseason ranking.
Touted as a sleeper team to make it to their first Final Four since 1978, nothing close ever materialized. A long season that started with the foreign tour of Ireland eventually ended with Notre Dame (21-15, 8-10 Big East) in foreign territory for a Top 10 preseason team -- the National Invitation Tournament.
Sitting out under NCAA transfer regulations following his freshman season at Purdue, Martin was a casual observer that winter, but he did learn something about that squad.
"That group didn't quit," Martin said Thursday during his sixth and final college basketball media day. "You can't quit no matter how bad it gets."
It was a lesson Martin dusted off last year. Treading the early Big East waters at 3-3 and in danger of slipping into a conference abyss, Notre Dame mustered enough determination to win a school-record nine consecutive conference games and finished 22-12, 13-5 in the league.
"We could have given up, could have just wrote it off and said, 'You know what? We'll get them next year.'" Martin said. "But no one quit.
"That speaks to how much these guys want to win. That leads me to believe good things will happen this year."
Four years and three consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament since 2008-09, similarly strong expectations again await Notre Dame. Coming off seasons of 14 and 13 league victories and returning all five starters, the Irish are considered among a trio of teams -- with Louisville and Syracuse -- poised to win the Big East.
No league team has as many Saturday-Monday swings in conference play (four) designed to again maximize national exposure for a team that many believe might be special. The A schedule returns, but the Irish are poised to answer with an A effort.
"We're all way hungrier than we were last year," said sophomore guard Jerian Grant. "We're really excited to go and prove what we can do."
What makes this group better equipped to handle everything? Likely myriad factors -- last season's NCAA tournament loss to Xavier, the returning experience, the athleticism of the freshmen, the pressure for everyone to produce in practice or someone else will and a belief that it's time for the next step.
"We're going to bring something that Notre Dame hasn't seen in a long time," promised freshman power forward Zach Auguste.
When the Irish arrive Friday afternoon for the first of more than 100 regular-season practices, waiting in each player's locker will be a sheet of paper placed there by the head coach. It will contain a three-word phrase.
Work to Deliver.
And deliver not on the expectations that outsiders have for the program, but for the expectations -- short and simple -- Mike Brey first outlined the day Notre Dame returned from Greensboro, N.C., and that loss to Xavier.
Forget any talk about getting to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament and beyond. Notre Dame has only winning a Big East regular-season championship for the first time in school history as its No. 1 goal. Numbers 2, 3, and 4 and beyond don't yet matter.
"That's going to be a heck of a challenge," Brey said. "Let's start with that."
Exhibition play begins Oct. 29 against Quincy. The regular season opener arrives Nov. 10 against Evansville and the league opener is Jan. 5 against Seton Hall.
The want-to and the willingness to get better, to be better, to play together of this outfit runs deep. Now it's time to go do it. Brey will counsel his players to embrace the journey, to enjoy all the twists and turns that the next five-plus months might bring. If all falls into place, there may be much to enjoy.
It could be a fun ride. It could be a long ride.
"I'm excited with the momentum of our program," Brey said. "I feel we can break some barriers that we had, maybe do things we've maybe never done before.
"We've got a good thing going right now."
Staff writer Tom Noie: